“They’re coming for you, Barbra!” — Magnus Theatre presents Night of the Living Dead Live

Review by Kyle Poluyko, Photos by Matthew Goertz

Adapting for the stage from film, especially celluloid classics, can be tricky business. Not everything transfers well from picturesque 35mm frames to the proscenium stage and so slight alterations to downright changes must be made. Such is the case with Magnus Theatre’s Night of the Living Dead Live, which began previews Monday night. Though some pacing and timing problems muddle the first act – surely to be tightened before opening night – this campy folly is a witty, smartly-imagined adaptation that should not be discounted.

Written by Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin, the adaptation retains the familiarity of George A. Romero’s 1968 cult classic. A group of diverse characters find themselves trapped in rural Pennsylvania farmhouse at the outbreak of a zombie attack where they struggle against odds, themselves, and each other. Preserved are the imperative themes of race, class, and gender roles, though the light of comedy is now cast upon them. As if caught in a loop, the characters meet many demises. A bumbling sheriff and his intrepid sidekick suggest scenarios in which the victims may have lived, and the curtain rises again to give the hunted another shot – several, in fact – at survival.

In must be said, above all else, that this is a cast that is working. Seven actors each portray a minimum of three characters, all negotiating arduous physical comedy and dialogue that demands fluidity, while executing quick changes offstage that are undoubtedly dizzying. Camp and slapstick requires commitment or an entire production devolves into absurdity, and this cast is committed. Tracey Beltrano’s principal character of Barbra is suspended in a post-traumatic state, resulting in delayed reactions that consistently elevate the comedy.

Jeff Schissler is authentic and credible in his four roles, particularly as Vince, a plucky and perceptive first responder in the aftermath of the attack, and as the young, innocent yet heroic Tom. Jesse Bond is reliable as Harry, a 1960s father-knows-best archetype who is always at odds with Michael Clarke’s Ben, another hero among the survivors who also shoulders, with finesse, the racial themes in the script. Completing the cast are Stuart Dowling, Danielle Nicole, and Justin Parcher, all of whom carry numerous roles and are crucial to the success of this vigorous production

Again, the humour is smart. There is an intelligence to the script that many may not anticipate. But timing is everything and, in the first act, some pauses are pregnant, and crucial jokes aren’t punctuated while others are stumbled over. Such has the potential to leave some audience members to mistakenly assume the production’s humour rests in the exaggerated bludgeoning of a zombie. The second act is tighter and richer, most likely because the cast developed a feel for the response of the audience, giving credence to the suggestion that act one simply requires another go or two in front of a crowd.

Lindsay Anne Black’s set design is functional on many levels but is simple as elaborate embellishments aren’t necessary. How the actors use the space is paramount. Lighting design by Kirsten Watt boasts some creative special effects and casts complimenting shadows for enhanced atmosphere. Yes, it’s comedy but creepy is a requirement. Mervi Agombar’s costume designs draw on Magnus’ rich collection of period wardrobe to authentically establish 1960s fashion. Director Mario Crudo has given solid structure to a production that is constantly in motion, especially behind the scenes, while the looped action on stage is dependent on a certain level of continuity.

Regardless of the Halloween occasion, Night of the Living Dead Live is an inspired choice by Magnus for the mainstage season. It is a departure from anticipated and expected play selections, but it is bold, and bold choices offer great rewards.

Night of the Living Dead Live is currently in previews at Magnus Theatre and runs through November 7. For more information call 345-5552 or visit magnus.on.ca.

Jesse Bond, Michael Clarke, Tracey Beltrano, Danielle Nicole, Jeff Schissler

Jesse Bond, Michael Clarke, Tracey Beltrano, Danielle Nicole, Jeff Schissler